Friday, April 27, 2007

Pants Takes No Prisoner

Something is becoming of me and I do not know what to make of it. I can’t even get interested in politics any more, much less be funny about them. I do know what’s causing it. The housing association from hell has become the monster that ate sanity. I can’t talk about it because it’s all gone a bit horribly legal. Suffice to say it is doing my fucking head in.

Incredibly, I’m still making very good progress on novel No. 3. As you may recall, I am at fourth draft stage. If you do, you are more in touch with reality than I am. Being in Ben’s head is a relief from the torpor of my own. His seemingly idiotic knee-jerk reaction to his marriage failure of buying a bar, sight unseen, on the Costa del Sol is as an exemplar of calm rectitude when compared with the reckless base jump into the bowels of hell triggered by my notion to sell my flat to a nice first-time buyer and retire to an isolated location in Australia where I can recycle my organic waste.

However, while I was fretting over my own predicament and trying to find a way to keep my jaw from taking up permanent residence on the floor, a much greater menace was at large in the shape of Melanie Phillips of one’s Daily Mail, wielding non-sequiturs the inventiveness of which my puny housing association could only dream. Melanie’s unparalleled skill for making up words and facts was much in evidence in today’s article entitled How welfarism is destroying Britain!

The direct link between welfarism and the 'me-society', between welfare rights and the erosion of the ties of duty that should bind us together, is unmistakable.

Intoneth la Melanie without the slightest botheration to join up those particular dots with, say, reference to a confirming research study or even a drunken conversation at the Pillar and Puke with Hooray Henry and a couple of his stock broker chums.

Yet no politician, even Conservative ones, will go near this subject. For all the windy rhetoric about irresponsibility and state interference, the root cause of these problems — the welfare state - remains a political untouchable.

Well hold the front page and rewrite the Book of Revelation. Where even angels, Katie Price and Boris Johnson fear to tread, in wades ‘Pel Mel’.

Frank Field was the former poverty campaigner who famously was instructed by Tony Blair to think the unthinkable on welfare.

He duly thought the unthinkable, came up with the radical proposal for an insurance-based welfare system - and was promptly sacked from his ministerial post for his pains.

An insurance-based welfare system? Did anyone test Frank Field for dalek blood at the time? Next thing you know it will come to light that this unthinkable thinker was planning to call this unspeakable atrocity 'National Insurance' and proposing to give every man, woman and child in the country a ‘number’, recalling terrible memories of the candy striped purgatory that was Patrick McGoohan’s ‘village’. That number, (no please you’re hurting meeeeee), would contain a pair of alphabetical letters followed by three pairs of numerical digits and a final letter (chosen personally by Carol Voderman) which would devour 11% of your salary for as long as you were lucky enough to be in employment. On Planet Pel Mel, that hardly applies to anybody. It’s like a Brave New World where tax credits are the soma.

Many more Britons are hooked on the dependency culture as benefits were renamed tax credits and applied ever higher up the income scale. The vast welfare bureaucracy enables the Government to intrude ever more into people's lives, particularly in the areas of family life and child-rearing.

Sorry Mel, even I know that Government wouldn’t dream of confining itself to spying on the tiny percentage of the population on benefits. It wants to know everything about all of us.

At this point I have to admit to being a little bit confused. Is Pel Mel saying that her made-up concept of ‘welfarism’ is a malign culture pervading our Great Britain?

The crucial point was that welfarism detached behaviour from its consequences. It held that material need must be met, regardless of behaviour.

Again Mel, pardonez-moi, I thought that was capitalism. Who’s doing your research – ‘Sir’ Philip Green?

Politicians are reluctant to admit the welfare state is bust because it is embedded in the national consciousness as a symbol of British decency, embodying principles of altruism and caring. But it betrays these principles every day. Look at the appalling neglect and abuse of elderly people in hospital. The poorest people in countries such as France, Germany and Switzerland receive a higher standard of care than they do in our NHS.

Couldn’t agree more Mel – the concept of the whole of society being responsible for the care and welfare of every individual within that society, no matter how disadvantaged, is a formula for abuse and neglect. Why Marx didn’t twig to that one, I’ll never be able to fathom.

Take family life. The Government says welfare must meet the needs of children whatever kind of household they live in.

The very idea! If Queen Victoria isn’t turning in her grave, I’ll require a plausible explanation as to why not.

People assume, for example, that the state will look after their elderly relatives. Increasing frailty, inevitably, means rising demand on state services - but much more could still be done by families to look after their elders. This climate of expectation has created in turn the something-fornothing culture and a climate of chronic self-centredness, shorttermism and sentimentality.

Madness, or what? As for public services, people should be paying into compulsory personal and social insurance schemes for pensions, health and long-term care and, in return, paying less tax to the state.

Well Pel Mel, there is the small matter of that 11% ‘National Insurance’ (yes – it’s a reallytruly thing), contribution that most of us have paid over a whole lifetime of working. If you don’t know anything about it, you obviously haven’t been paying into it. Services like health, social security and pensions aren’t ‘free’, they’re ‘pre-paid’. You know, like your mobile – you pay for calls you haven’t yet made, even if you never get to make them. Insurance is like that.

You know, I’m actually starting to feel a little bit better. I have to go now because I want to watch Life Line – a show about the dead. I have high hopes of spotting a few people whom I have been secretly willing over to the other side. Please wish me luck…

Graphic from The Prisoner BBC Television series

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I See Red

Yesterday, I was running around Hackney Marshes and a small animal scurried into my path. I suspected rat but hoped for vole. As I slowed to a tiptoe – the way I run, this wasn’t much of an adjustment – I could see the creature was a reddish-brown colour. I stopped within ten or so feet of it and it stood up. Not a rat or vole then. It had a white chest. After twenty-five years in England and on Hackney Marshes, of all places, I saw my first ever red squirrel. It was tiny.

At the end of my run, I went scurrying off to find a ranger to report this miraculous sighting. Breathlessly I pointed and explained. The ranger shrugged and said she thought that red squirrels were extinct. Impasse. I know what I saw. I couple of years ago I saw a grass snake swimming in the canal along Hackney Marshes. Luckily I had friends with me and they were able to confirm that I wasn’t hallucinating. The snake even stuck its head out of the water and hissed at us so as we’d be under no illusions about its slithery pedigree. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a snake in Britain apart from in zoos and Doreen’s pet shop.

I’ve been all over the English countryside and been promised many varieties of English wildlife but the only time I’ve seen any animal of rarity and note has been in Hackney. I’ve just been onto the London Wildlife Trust website and I’m not going to grace them with a link because they don’t even mention Hackney Marshes as a wildlife area, even though we have a wonderful bird sanctuary and a quite awesome population of pond life, not all of it concentrated in the surrounding pubs.

At great expense, I once rented a medieval manor in Suffolk and was guaranteed, at the very least, a badger. Barn owls and a headless horseman were also on the menu of possible attractions. Hopefully lighting candles and throwing runes each evening in what had once been ‘the great hall’, we were rewarded with the farmer next door’s moggy playing in the hedges masquerading as our promised badger. We were neither fooled nor amused. I’ve yet to see a barn owl that wasn’t tethered and available for photos at a fiver a pop. And the headless horseman? You figure it out.

On a weekend trip to Buckinghamshire I was vouchsafed enough hedgehogs to build a prickly stairway to the stars. If you are happy to enter heaven on a ladder of road kill, then Chalfont St Giles is definitely the place for you. The only living hedgehogs I’ve ever encountered have been on Hackney Marshes. For years I used to meet a friend, now sadly dead, for contemplative evening walks on the Marshes. We’d usually have a can of Carlsberg Special Brew to warm us up on cold nights and aid us in putting the world to rights. There were times when the sleeping hedgehogs were so thick on the ground that our conversation consisted almost entirely of ‘Gosh, sorry’, as our sturdy Zamberlan boots kicked yet another slumbering hedgehog into touch.

My very great excitement at the variety of birds and insects available on my doorstep is unmatched by any organisation that claims to keep a watching brief on our delicate urban ecosystem. I have attempted to report sightings of a black swan on the canal beside my flat and a pair of red kites hovering over the trees above to the RSPB. Black swans are much smaller than the mute swans that live in this area. At that time there was six pair in the vicinity. The black swan didn’t have a partner as it was probably an escapee from some wildlife park but it was tolerated if not exactly embraced by the large group of mute swans. I can’t believe that enthralling anthropological phenomenon wasn’t of interest to anyone. As for red kites, I thought people were desperate for sightings of kites – apparently not if it’s by me. If Bill Oddie had seen them I bet there would have been plenty of cooing.

And rabbits – Hackney is London’s Watership Down. You can see them come out for morning and evening silflay in their thousands at dawn and dusk. I’ve never managed dawn but have often spotted them at dusk. Common animals like foxes, coots, Greylag geese, Canada geese, moorhens, mallard and tufted ducks, cormorants, herons, terns, seagulls, robins, blackbirds and magpies, you hardly notice after a while. Yet they are all out there living their parallel lives. How many people know, for example, that the nest building behaviour of coots varies wildly from pair to pair and is the subject of fierce negotiation? Coots build their nests in water close to the bank. We have one pair that only ever uses natural materials. The female insists on only the finest lily roots neatly woven for her home. By contrast there is another pair who will throw together a nest out of anything within reach. Once, the male dragged a Yellow Pages telephone directory into the construction. They quite often refurbish an existing structure. One year they used a fridge door that happened to float by, another year they simply lined an old tyre to create a stylish abode.

Some day, in the very near future, all these animals will be thrown into turmoil just like the rabbits in Watership Down, by the coming of ‘progress’ in the form of The Olympics. Forty years ago, as school children in Australia, we were learning all about conservation. Britain is yet to wake up. Beaches are twice as filthy as they were ten years ago and wildlife staff think animals that live in their park are extinct. I feel most for that little red squirrel. Having defied ‘extinction’, it will soon find itself facing eviction. Where does a creature that doesn’t exist move to exactly?

Photo by R Thompson from

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Daiquiri Doldrums

Warning – this post turns nasty.

Some good news at last – even if it is from the Daily Mail. Drinking strawberry daiquiris can help prevent cancer!

Scientists have found that treating the berries with alcohol boosts their cancer-fighting properties - suggesting that strawberry-based cocktails may be better for us than we realised. The researchers, who were looking for ways to keep the fruit fresh during storage, discovered that alcohol enhances the strawberry's ability to mop up harmful molecules linked to cancer, heart disease and arthritis.

Of course we might want to question exactly how the researchers chanced upon this great discovery and what they thought they were looking for. Maybe, like Ernest Hemingway who is said to have had a big hand in the road testing if not the actual invention of the daiquiri in the fabulous El Floridita, Havana (pictured), they were simply experiencing a downturn in ideas and seeking solace in decorous distraction. They say this is how Watson & Crick happened upon DNA. Although a couple of pints of bitter down at the Bunsen Burner and Beaker doesn’t have quite the same romantic ring to it.

I’m always very pleased when alcohol is found to have health benefits just as I am when chocolate is advised. But sooner or later almost everything enjoyable will turn up on some recommended list of good foods or other, unless of course you have too much of it, in which case the benefits are negated. That never made a huge amount of sense to me. Surely if something is good, the more you have, the better it is. Still, I am pleased for any excuse to drink a refreshing daiquiri.

As is the way with thoughts, which can also be very bad for you, one led to another and I started to think about the growing obsession we have with discovering ways to prolong, preserve, protect and perfect our lives and what happens when a rogue event slips past all these security devices. That trail led to contemplating the difficulty of realistically evaluating the ‘preciousness’ of life in the various contexts in which it is presented to us. No matter how you look at it, life is finite.

This week, a man called Cho Seung-Hui killed thirty-two people, most of them students with their whole lives ahead of them, on a university campus in the USA. He left a video indicating that at that moment in time, he was deranged, delusional and dangerously homicidal, prompting a huge public demand for the heads of the person or persons responsible for failing to prevent this terrible thing happening. For days authorities in Virginia have been painstakingly and repeatedly explaining in press conferences that the man who carried out this appalling massacre had done nothing to warrant being incarcerated or committed. He was simply a weird loner who’d hassled a couple of girls – until he snapped.

Also this week, an unknown man or men killed over a hundred and fifty people, many of them mothers and children with their whole lives ahead of them, in Baghdad’s Sadriyah market. Although one of the worst massacres of Shiite civilians in Iraq it was by no means an unusual event so no one is driving themselves nuts trying to figure out why. These two events have far more in common than they have to distinguish them. How more or less important is the motive when the end result is exactly the same? People who were living last week are no longer living this week because of a random act of inexplicable brutality and that is tragic, but can we ever expect death to give us a logical explanation? Perhaps someone could and should have helped Cho Seung-Hui deal with whatever madness was happening in his head but it’s not possible to know who that someone might have been and if they would have made any difference to the final outcome and neither was it possible to know what was going on in Cho’s head because he chose not to reveal it.

The human body is both awesomely robust and wretchedly vulnerable as Hemingway demonstrated by surviving not one, but two plane crashes and then being felled by his own precarious mental state. He shot himself and, fortunately, didn’t take anyone else with him. It’s very rare for suicides to kill someone else as well and even rarer for it to be random strangers. Please don’t think I’m making light of these awful events that happen in the world. Regular readers will know that I am a fatalist by nature. My points are that people can have a dark side and there's no magic way to detect whether it will lead them to harm any more than there is a way to predict if they'll die in a car accident, and that the quality of individual life can’t be assessed according to the circumstances of its end.

Of course there are calls to review the gun laws in Virginia - which should be done, and to find ways to ensure that this never happens again – which can’t be done. I’m not sure that I will ever agree that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, no matter how dangerous the world seems. I am more inclined to think the price of liberty is reasonable risk because the alternative, under consideration in Britain this week with regard to the Mental Health Act, involves curbing the freedoms of thousands of people who have never done anything wrong and, in all probability, never will, in an attempt to prevent one or two chaotic events. I think we have to accept that catastrophe on the scale of what happened in Virginia can never be completely eliminated from the realms of possibility and be grateful that it is so rare. And we should not expect either the mental health or security services to guarantee our safety any more than we should expect strawberry daiquiris to stand between us and death. They didn’t work for Hemingway.

Phot0 - It's me with EH at El Floridita in 2005. Taken by Ozmicro and ruined by me

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Everything is Illuminated

As everyone in Britain knows, Hackney is the worst place to live – because a TV show said so last year. It’s mangier than Middlesbrough, Mappowder and Merthyr Tydfil. It’s grungier than Grays, Grimsby and Gravesend. It’s uglier than Ulva, Ullapool and Usk. It’s ranker than Ramsbottom, nastier than Nether Wallop and tackier than Tolpuddle. In Hackney we even need signs that tell us the street lighting is functional. It isn’t by the way, it’s just that you can’t read the signs at night and when you can read them, in the day, you don’t expect the lights to be on anyway so you believe the signs and are grateful that your council tax is being spent on something.

This is the time of year when you are most likely to see evidence of some spending as works department heads find out that, instead of not having any money at all as they have been led to believe for eleven months, there is now half a million quid to be spent in three weeks. We were lucky here in Hackney Wick as we were standing right underneath that wind when it fell and a hideous torn rag of emerald green astro-turf that local kids have been trying to play football on for the last nine years has been replaced by a state of the art grass-coloured ‘sports surface’. It was the last aspect of my immaculate and for sale flat that needed to be perfected, and now it is.

You would expect that with the magnificent weather, budding foliage and everywhere evidence of lifestyle, that potential buyers would be falling in love left, right and centre. Sadly, this is not the case. A young couple came on Saturday. They looked like they might slot right into Hackney. He had wigger dreadlocks and she was small and Mediterranean. The sun was making like it was servicing a solarium and he walked in and said ‘Wow, what a lovely place.’ She seemed happy that she could see at all. There you go my lovely, I thought - prematurely as it turns out. They stayed five minutes, said nothing to each other and couldn’t get away fast enough. I know I’m a bit whiffy but I did both wash and spray. I think they just remembered that they were in Hackney. Although it can look and feel like a fabulous place to live, it actually can’t be because it’s the worst place in Britain.

These regular episodes with baffling strangers, and the wear and tear of having to keep the flat nice for an indefinite period is almost doing me in but there is the daily jog around Hackney Marshes to look forward to. Today, on the bitumen perimeter path I came across a large deposit of horseshit. It’s much harder to get angry about horseshit than dogshit because it seems somehow less deliberate. When you see dogshit, you know that the owner has brought his or her dog outdoors for the sole purpose of shitting. You know horses are allowed to shit where they live and there’s no shortage of Camilla-inspired horsy girls lining up to muck out after them.

Horseshit in a paddock looks organic but, on bitumen it looks like one incredibly long, enormous crap that no one wants to do anything about. The only people allowed to ride horses on Hackney Marshes are the police. They’re not going to dismount and poop scoop, are they? The rangers in their little golf buggies don’t seem inclined to engage either. So we have a stalemate that’s getting staler and staler. We also have an interesting anomaly. Local police virtually wake up in the morning reciting the mantra – we must prosecute people who enable dog fouling yet I’d be very surprised if any police station in the country that supported police horses ever opened a conversation with the words, ‘should we really be depositing great big gobs of horseshit on pathways where little children are running and playing?’

But it was a beautiful day and I am making great progress with Draft 4 of my book. Having woken up yesterday with the perfect opening, I have just been cruising. I very much looked forward to the vege box delivery from the adored Abel & Cole but when it arrived, there was a curt little note with it. To wit – ‘PLEASE FLATTEN ALL BOXES AFTER USE’. So great is the esteem in which I hold Abel & Cole, that I immediately assumed I was at fault and, sure enough, when I looked at the cute little box, there is a clear instruction weaving itself along the softly curved opening which requests,

Please fold it (the box) down and return it to your driver so we can reuse it and save some trees!

Bravo dear Abel & Cole and mega mea culpa. I did think – poor driver, how dreadful it must be to have to dismantle all these boxes – until, until I looked at the box and realised it could be flattened with one deft hand movement. He could have reduced five hundred boxes to a satisfactory state of flatness in the time it takes to walk back down the two flights of stairs and out to the yellow van that can be seen from space so it’s not about the work involved. My dear, lovely Abel & Cole driver can only have assumed that I considered myself too posh to push and, after months of waiting for me to read the sodding label, he’s finally cracked. There is only one thing for it and that’s for me to leave a sweet little card on my resolutely flattened box next week apologising profusely for just not getting it. It’s the very least I can do.

Perhaps my potential buyers are put off by the dichotomy of workhouse conditions and big house expectations. Hackney is an enigma and quite possibly a converse of the traditional model of vacuity in that, in Hackney the lights are off but everyone’s at home…

Photo by me - like that needed clarifying

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Head Strong and the Angry Inches

Just as we blog rats are finally having a little fun, some tedious prat of an adult comes along and tries to rain on our tirade. I refer of course to the ludicrous attempt by Messrs Wales and O’Reilly of the Made a Fortune off the Internet and Now Believe We Have the Blog-Given Right to Dictate to the Monsters of Our Own Creation Club to impose a Code of Conduct on the blogosphere. In their esteemed view, we are all being far too rude to each other. I have two words – as fucking if. I know that’s technically three words but the qualifier is not active so I presume, and I certainly hope we can all agree, it’s really two words.

Anyway, as reported in one’s beloved Guardian today by blogger-styled ‘second worst broadsheet journalist in Britain’ Tim Dowling, the internet pioneers and self-appointed parents of the web have decided to call their naughty offspring in for a spot of Emily Post. (She was a manners guru, google-heads). My personal two-fingered take on this is that if my etiquette needs a makeover I’ll join fucking Toastmasters. You are not the boss of me Tim O’Reilly and Jimmy Wales.

Sorry, did I just go off on one? Well yes, actually. It’s my blog and I’ll be wry if I want to. Ha! Here’s the thing – pphhooooouuuuu – sorry (again), that was a virtual raspberry for you Tim O’Reilly – much respect to ya Pops – who is the author of this Code of Conduct. As I understand it you look like Hawkeye Pierce outa M*A*S*H* and you fucking expect us to take ya serious? Get an afterlife sucker ‘cos you sound like a religious prat. Golly me, sorry, I must have been possessed by some cyber-ego. Any more of this insolence and I’ll have to give myself an e-ASBO.

The gospel according to Saints Timothy and James is charmingly introduced thus,

We celebrate the blogosphere because it embraces frank and open conversation. But frankness does not have to mean lack of civility. We present this Blogger Code of Conduct in hopes that it helps create a culture that encourages both personal expression and constructive conversation.

Gawd love a duck – sounds just like Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair speak. You guys got Alistair Campbell scripting for ya? The ache of lofty hurt feelings is palpable. The agony these guys must be going through when you consider the heart and soul investment they have made in creating these personal platforms so that the general public can engage in ‘constructive conversation’ only to find their lovingly set table upturned and their pretty doilies torn to shreds. A parent should never know such heartache. Why it makes Gremlins look like The Water-babies.

The Code of Conduct mainly consists of statements of the blindingly obvious that, unless you run your blog for no other purpose than to spread malicious spite, you probably adhere to anyway. Most of us don’t brook aimless invective. What would be the point of that? Your blog may be the one arena in your life where you exert absolute domination. Why would you yield that to some nutter with a can of Tennants Extra in one hand and a slim grasp of reality in the other? But there is one howler that undermines any credibility these guys might have had,

We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.

The most positive thing you can say about this limp piety is that it comes from the do as I say and not as I do school of philosophical thought and can only be the product of someone whose grey matter has been colonised by tapioca. That it’s a technical nonsense, seems to have been lost on the super brains that authored it. There is no such thing as ‘in person’ in the blogosphere. You are not communicating with actual people – you are communicating with a version of humanity that someone on the end of a keyboard chooses to present. You might just as well demand that characters in a Pinter play be civil to each other. Your correspondent could just as easily be the Face of Boe as caring, sensitive Melissa Melontoes from Friern Barnet. Everyone is the same size and weight with the same capacity to inflict a bloody nose. And if you get biffed yourself, it doesn’t actually hurt. Sticks and stones people, sticks and stones.

Dowling asks possibly the most laughably redundant question of the twenty-first century,

What is blogging for?

Here’s the thing Tim. The world is wrong and every blogger knows that the existence of their blog, goes some way to redressing that wrongness. In our mainstream culture, opinion tends to be legitimised by its monetary value and it doesn’t necessarily follow that the people with the best formed and most eloquently expressed views are the ones that end up in the newspaper. In this respect the blogosphere is egalitarian – everyone has the same chance of putting their thoughts into the public domain. The value judgment is entirely a construct of professional writers. Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming book, The Cult of the Amateur : How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, says, ‘if you’ve got something good, why would you give it away for free?’ Same reason you don’t flog your newborn baby on eBay I guess Andy old chap.

The parallel universe inhabited by Messrs Dowling, O’Reilly, Wales, Keen et al in which Chip’n’Dale pour each other cups of Darjeeling and pepper their conversations with words like indubitably, is also home to Prime Ministerial pretender Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown. It’s going to take more than a book about courage and perseverance and a couple of stilted, mawkish conversations with kiddies baffled by such terms as ‘a raft of measures’ to recover the reputation of this risible duck. Speaking to one’s Guardian yesterday Scrooge revealed,

‘I think we’re moving away from this period when celebrity matters, when people have become famous for being famous.’

Mmm. That would be on the same day as the one when, in our world at least, the only news story was Kate Middleton and her broken romance. Let me see now that would be the Kate Middleton who is famous for being the girlfriend of someone who is famous for being born into a preposterous anachronism of a privileged family with no defensible place in a modern, democratic society. Undeterred by not only being on the wrong page but in a musty library in a galaxy far, far away, Scrooge lumbered on,

‘But I’ve somehow got more faith in the essential decency of the British people – that they want to talk about the big and important issues in a way that does justice to them.’

Funny. I checked the letterbox and there was no invitation to join my local debating society in there. Just as well really because whenever I’ve been to local discussion groups they always make you agree a set of ‘ground rules’ which involve making pledges of mutual respect and agreeing to the absurd notion that everyone’s opinion matters. Clearly, in the narrow context in which this given applies, it’s almost always self-defeating and exposes rather than protects the people for whom it is artificially imposed. This is how you find yourself politely talking about someone’s overflow when you’re supposed to be deciding whether your local failing school should turn into an academy to make it sound more attractive to parents.

The essential flaw in Tim Dowling’s argument is that it is based on a misconception just as crude. What he’s saying is that only a select few are authorised to express an opinion and that selection is made by newspaper editors using quality criteria that suits their particular purpose. The blogosphere is the diametric opposite. Everyone has an equal opportunity to participate and their legitimacy hinges on their ability to hold the interest of their readers. In other words it’s earned rather than bestowed.

On the bright side, there is a reason to live embedded in this facile article and that is that it provides an opportunity to snigger and sneer at these fusty old adults and their vacuous attempts to paint the world magnolia. We can go on being as rude to each other as we like because the olds don’t have any jurisdiction in cyberspace. Let our motto be Roolz is for Foolz. If you think you’re hard enough, meet me in the comments box and be prepared to fight to the death, or until it’s time for my tea, whichever one comes first…

Irreverently doctored Rokeby Venus by Velasquez. I've got no shame, me.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Mars Attacks!

When Sam Tyler finally gets back home from his involuntary secondment to CID Mars to find the PC world of er… PCs in 2007 dull as dandruff, he willingly hurls himself back into the rough and tumble magic of 1973. This is a land where you can brazenly front a bird for a one night stand and just get a baffled, sympathetic look instead of a referral to a sex therapist and a tongue lashing about commitment-phobia. She wouldn’t do it of course, it was 1973. Well, it wasn’t quite like the 1973 I remember but maybe Spare Rib didn’t have a distribution deal in Manchester.

I would personally give anything to be back in the real 1973 where feminism was a strong baby girl with a bright future as opposed to now when it is an elderly, demented granny being abused in a care home and forgotten by her ungrateful offspring. Presently our ideology-starved nation is salivating over the fate of a real woman whose accidental tourism into the world of celebrity in the course of doing a job she loves and is good at and at which she risks her life every day for the safety and security of others has many of our fellow citizens demanding a public stoning. Leading Seaman Faye Turney, the one woman among the fifteen sailors and marines taken captive by Iranian guards was singled out by both the Iranians and the British for extraordinary media attention and then pilloried for it by those who trained the spotlight on her in the first place.

Kris has been all over this one ever since criticism first started to emerge about the response of the fifteen to their abduction. What did the public expect – that they’d steal a motorbike and jump fences all the way back to HMS Cornwall? The breathtaking ignorance of the general public and its media mouthpieces about the daily lives of men and women on active service has been thoroughly exposed by this episode. But even so, the morbid interest in Faye Turney should be, in 2007, a shock. As Kris points out, it is a very thin veil (sorry) over a very obvious agenda to ban women from combat. Polly Toynbee calmly sets about trying to chart the equality gap in her excellent piece for Comment is Free. She talks about the symbolism of Turney being forced to wear a hijab and the irony of The Daily Mail finding itself in agreement with President Ahmadinejad who wailed,

‘How can you justify seeing a mother away from her home, her children? Why don't they respect family values in the west?’

Excuse me? If we’re so morally aligned with the Iranians, why are they the evil empire again? When you start throwing ad hoc value judgments into the ideological pot, you end up with an ethical stew. It’s all quite simple, really. The Sex Discrimination Act makes it illegal to discriminate against a woman in employment so there is no question of banning woman from active service in the forces unless the act is repealed. If it’s all about risk assessment then who gets to grapple with the ethical questions it throws up like does a woman’s life have a different value than a man’s life? Does a mother’s life have a different value than a childless woman’s life? Does the age of a mother’s children come into it?

The argument is starting to sound a bit ridiculous but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Should women not risk their lives at all? Ever? Should women not become police officers, fire fighters or war correspondents? Should we not be allowed to sail around the world like Ellen McCarthy and what about that mountain climber who died a couple of years ago – she had children. Then there is the question of how we perceive heroism in women. Should our Charlotte Grays not smoke or be a bit fat or have three year olds? Is the only version of bravery we’ll accept from women the one where they overcome terrible injuries and then get married or get killed in action and be a friend of Prince William? I mean no disrespect to women whose lives have been tragically altered or taken, I merely suggest that to measure the rectitude of a woman using a yardstick borrowed from Pollyanna is a threat to the freedom and rights of all of us.

What’s been exposed by this episode, as Toynbee points out, is how little we have advanced as a culture in gaining true equality for women. It’s quite clear from the interviews Faye Turney gave to The Sun and a special edition of Tonight with Trevor McDonald that both she and her husband were labouring under the misapprehension that they are a normal, decent, functional British family bringing their daughter up to be ‘a very reliable, independent, strong young woman.’ Perhaps, like poor Sam Tyler, Turney had only imagined that feminism had happened. There have been few concessions to the arrival of women in any of the protective services. They have had to adapt themselves to uniforms, equipment and traditions designed to suit the needs of men and think themselves lucky if they get a separate toilet. And they have done it without a peep.

Faye Turney’s situation got a whole lot worse after the dithering Ministry of Defence turned a cock-up into a catastrophe by briefly opening a window allowing the fifteen to tell their stories for payment and then promptly shutting it again after she had done her interviews, adding yet another layer to her ‘otherness’. Through no fault of her own, Turney will become the only person to substantially profit from her experience and one of only two to be paid for their stories. Mark Lawson, writing in The Guardian yesterday, was baffled by the MoD volte face, as am I. As he rightly observes, Turney was the epitome of dignity. How could the MoD have possibly thought her appearances had not provided them with ‘a satisfactory outcome’ as Defence Minister Des Browne complained? It prompts the question – what exactly were they expecting her story to be?

Unlike many of the female role models who have taken up residence in our peripheral vision via the media, Turney neither courted nor welcomed the public interest. Yet, it is there and has to be managed by someone. A Google search of her name reveals 1.34 million entries so far. Here we have another of those sticky situations where no one can really decide on the criteria for who should be allowed to manage their own explosion of limelight and who shouldn’t. That amount of interest is so huge it renders any discussion of whether her story should or should not have been told a complete nonsense. Since much of the attention has been negative, it would have been equally ridiculous to refuse her the right to present herself as she really is and far more damaging both to her reputation and that of her service.

All day radio and television stations have been calling up the families of soldiers killed in action and getting them to say that serving members of the forces should not be allowed to profit from their experiences. Sorry, I’m getting really confused here. Private Johnson Beharry, the first black soldier to win a Victoria Cross was given permission to write a book while still in the Army. Met Police Superintendent Ali Desai was allowed to publish a book. MPs are allowed to profit from divulging arguably privileged information while still in office. Where is that wriggly line to be drawn, exactly? If I had daughters, I would much prefer they hero-worshipped sea survival specialist Faye Turney than say Victoria Beckham, a woman whose only talent is the ability to suck both her stomach and cheeks in at the same time.

Life on Mars will soon morph into Ashes to Ashes where we will discover uber chauvinist Gene Hunt transferred to London in 1981 where he will enter a consciousness duel with mad/coma/time-travelling accident victim and single mum DCI Alex Drake fresh from the PC world of 2008. I wonder if she’ll wander into the Silver Moon Bookshop on Charing Cross Road to pick up her copy of Spare Rib and check out the latest batch of Virago reissues or call the local women’s collective if she needs a plumber or electrician. I expect her to be listening to The Slits, The Raincoats, Pauline Murray’s Invisible Girls and Penetration and bemoaning the premature demise of X-Ray Spex. If not, I’ll want to know why not because that’s what the real 1981 looked like. And at some point I’d better hear the words ‘Oh bondage, up yours Guv’ coming out of her mouth or I won’t believe she was really there either.

Picture from

Monday, April 09, 2007

Anxious Tomes

A Japanese woman came to view the flat yesterday. I use the term ‘view’ figuratively as her perspective was solely gained via a small photographic device. I have been to Japan several times so I know that where people live often seems no bigger than a 5 x 4 photograph but I had no idea that this was the only way to perceive a living space. I have moaned before about people coming to look at the flat and, rather than appreciate its breathtaking On Golden Pondness, they simply ask where the nearest supermarket is. It’s probably all a matter of priorities and my love of looking out the window at trees, swans, geese and people who look like David Bellamy chugging by in boats painted up to look like gypsy caravans probably should have been dispatched to a jumble sale along with my Peggy Lee cocktail dresses years ago. Or maybe we just can’t digest the simple pleasures of life unless refracted through an unreliable piece of technology owned and controlled by a creepy multinational. My potential buyer seemed to notice none of the qualities of my home that I hold dear and promptly left once her memory card was full.

I had this episode in my mind when I read John Lanchester’s article in The Guardian about the ever present threat of internet availability of the world’s literature to the long term future of the book as we know it. On the face of it you’d think this is a no brainer and why are we even having this conversation, wouldn’t you? Lanchester duly points out that there is a world of difference between the technologies that created a paradigm shift in the way we consume music and films and the likely impact of putting a few classic texts on the web on our centuries old love affair with the paper paramour.

There are obvious advantages to multi-media storage devices because they make life easier in so many ways. Believe me, I know how difficult it is to choose the right music to suit a particular journey so the more efficient that can be, the better I like it. Despite the doom and gloom forecasts of the music and film industries, the widespread copying and sharing of their product did not lead to the demise of their industry. In fact the opposite occurred. The cheaper it is, the more we buy – and actually, most of us do still buy quite legitimately, save the forlorn compilation tapes we make for people we fancy and are trying to impress.

Lanchester reminds us not only of why we love books but that they are the most efficient way of conveying a long story over the unavoidably long period it takes to be conveyed effectively with the joy that was intended by their author,

A book is also an object and a piece of technology; in fact, a book is an extraordinary piece of technology, portable, durable, expensive to pirate but easy to use, not prone to losing its data in crashes and capable of taking on an amazing variety of beautiful forms.

I think of the three places I’m most likely to have a book – bed, beach and bus. How would my MPwhatever Player feel about being dropped on the floor as I finally fall asleep after foolishly negotiating myself ‘just one more chapter’ long after losing the ability to focus? How would it fare left on the beach when I went for a surf – would it be advertised on eBay before I’d even caught my first wave? Most of us have been let down by technology at inopportune times but my response to a battery failure just as Emma Bovary contemplates her last moments, Moby Dick steams towards The Pequod or Scout Finch lies helpless on the forest floor dressed as a ham, would earn me an ASBO. Try as I might, I cannot think of a substitute for the joy of opening and closing a book, especially if there’s a handmade bookmark from my niece involved.

Okay, so if the idea of a digitised book is so pants, why are Google a) running around trying to create partnerships with all the world’s copyright libraries and b) being so secretive about it? Lanchester thinks the answer might lie in the 70% of books that are out of print but still in copyright. These have even acquired the moniker of ‘orphan works’, despite that fact that the parent may be very much alive and interested in the future of his or her offspring. As Lanchester very reasonably points out, no one in their right mind is going to prefer an electronic version of Middlemarch to their own well-thumbed copy which they might even have had since childhood. But it’s probably not novels that are the target of Google’s interest, not initially anyway.

Whether you are writing an essay or article or simply burning the midnight cyber-oil trying to keep up with your peers, what you want out of internet research is instant, reliable information. As anyone who’s researched on the internet knows, the big problem with freely available information is verification. Lanchester talks about this in the article but, I think, misses the point when he speculates that future problems might be caused by an unwillingness by a population conditioned to ‘stealing’ other people’s intellectual property via the internet to pay for information. If there is reluctance, it’s much more likely to be of the buying blind variety.

But what if one organisation with the backing of all the world’s most prestigious universities were to control all that information – in the public interest of course? One central, validated repository called, let me see, Google Book Search?

Let’s not forget that Google (owner of mein host Blogger) is very much the leader of the current intellectual property sharing culture and has managed to successfully blur the boundaries of the ‘public domain’ by enabling plagiarism that no conventional publisher could ever get away with by simply facilitating a global volume that can't be successfully monitored or regulated. And yes, we bloggers are undoubtedly pawns in this game because we provide product for free that other people charge money for and we also liberally dispense quotes and images that we have access to, usually via a Google mechanism, sometimes crediting the originator, but often not.

You could argue that Google is simply exploiting a natural tendency in people to share or even reinterpret a piece of art that has touched them in some way. During World War II my father copied down the lyrics to new songs as soon as they were played on the armed forces radio and passed them around amongst his comrades so they could all sing together. He was infringing copyright by doing so. It’s against the law to sew a sampler with a few lines from a Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes poem without permission from their estates or paint exactly like Jackson Pollock but are the Pollock police going to come around and prosecute you and your toddler for splattering paint on an old sheet in your back garden? I think not.

Google already has free access to the 20% of the world’s books that are out of copyright and, with the cooperation of the libraries that hold copies of these books, it will focus its immediate attention on getting all of them online. Google won’t have exclusive rights to Jane Austen or Shakespeare and you’ll probably have your own bound copies of your favourite classics, but if you are looking for an exact quote in a hurry, you’ll go to Google and each time you do, you’ll contribute to their legitimacy as the primary source of literary material. If Google then starts to target the 70% of literature that is out of print, the copyright owners, many of whom will be beneficiaries without a vested interest in the integrity of the work, will naturally think it is better for the work to be available to the public especially if it opens up an income stream in the process. As Lanchester points out, Google would then effectively become a publisher – but interestingly, one that doesn’t create actual books, those things we love so much.

It doesn’t take a maths genius to deduce that thumbscrews would soon begin appearing on the remaining 10% of works in copyright and in print, many of which will have been and are continuing to be created by living, breathing writers with increasingly nervous publishers. These would be the jewels in any aspiring monopolist’s crown. Citing the sinister example of Disney’s manipulation of US copyright laws to maintain the ownership and earning power of the Mickey Mouse franchise long after the rights should have lapsed, Lanchester exposes a potentially lethal weakness in our long tradition of copyright existing for the protection of the author. Yes, powerful corporations can and do influence law-making. With a population eager to devour every new piece of technology on the market, governments and academia alike enraptured by the possibilities for the betterment of us plebs and a regulation vacuum that could suck up Siberia without anyone noticing, there will be no greater opportunity for Google to gobble up world rights to the written word.

Lanchester is right to raise the alarm in the face of Google’s offensive. At the moment, it may make no more sense than Warner Chappell’s purchase of the rights to Happy Birthday in 1990 for a ridiculous $15m. Ever hear of Warner Chappell showing up at a kiddy’s birthday party with a writ? Not yet. In the long term, we should try to imagine a future where, like my Japanese buyer, we end up deciding on where to live on the basis of a tiny digitised image. Or we may be so preoccupied with mastering our newly purchased MPWhatever Player that we fail to notice that the faceless corporation that sold it to us is burning all our books while we are tearing our hair out trying fathom how to download the latest updates to Pride and Prejudice.

Note : I'd put up some artwork on this post which I have subsequently discovered is not allowed by the author so I've replaced with this cute picture from

Sunday, April 08, 2007

To Catch a Naif

Here is a list of people I think probably google themselves on a regular basis. It is in no particular order. The stats for this one should be interesting...

Selina Scott, David Furnish, Mark E Smith, Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, Adam Ant, Geri Halliwell, Kenny Goss, Tony Hadley, Seal, Omar, Mel B, Anne Diamond, Michael French, David Icke, Leee John, Duchess of York, Ben Page, John Barrowman, Ricky Gervais, Patsy Palmer, Lewis Collins, Jason Donovan, Paddy McAloon, Ian Botham, Tim Henman, Les Dennis, Heather Mills-McCartney, Hazel Blears, Edwina Curry, David Seaman, Eric Cantona, Martine McCutcheon, Bob Geldof, Jade Goody, Leo Sayer, Natasha Kaplinsky, Nicky Campbell, Davina McCall, Bill Oddie, Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock, Bonnie Langford, Peter Andre, Neil and Christine Hamilton, Roger Moore, Sinead O'Connor, Grace Jones, Gary Numan, Kevin Rowland, Yazz, Katie Price, Guy Ritchie, Limahl, Rolf Harris, Alison Moyet, Melinda Messenger, Samantha Fox, Roland Rat, Chris Eubank, Prince Naseem Hamad, Eddie the Eagle, Peaches Geldof, Will Young, Paul Daniels, Michael Barrymore, Alexei Sayle, Tara Palmer Tomkinson, Dave Lee Travis, Esther Rantzen, Noel Edmonds, Piers Morgan, Vanessa Feltz, Julie Burchill, Mil Millington, Paul Young, Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot, Glenn Tilbrook, Chris Difford, Martin Amis, DBC Pierre, Carla Lane, Daley Thompson, Jeffrey Archer, Morrisey, Boy George, Jon Moss, Adamski, Aled Jones, Max Hastings, Bono, Toyah Wilcox, Rod Stewart, Bill Wyman, Julian Lennon, Michael Parkinson, Jeremy Paxman, Polly Toynbee, Jon Ronson, Adrian Edmondson, Tom Baker, Ken Livingstone, Lee Jasper, Carol Vorderman, Lorraine Kelly, Pete Waterman, Nigel Benn, Pat Cash, Gillian McKeith, Tony Blackburn, Ian Duncan Smith, James Hewitt, Chantelle, Preston, Gareth Gates, Cathy McGowan, Germaine Greer, Tony Parsons, Andrew Motion, Elizabeth Hurley.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Way of the Pear

I try never to get too comfortable with the idea of being accepted, no matter how prosperous my prospects seem. What always happens is that the minute I get complacent about my right to ‘be’, it always gets challenged so it’s better if I just assume that, sooner or later, I’ll be found to not be a proper person and politely asked to leave. It’s partly my rebellious nature – I have an inbuilt aversion to blindly carrying out orders if to do so would be destructive to my own interests or the good of humanity. Some people interpret that as unreasonable. But also, it’s to do with assumptions and impressions that are beyond my control. To wit – people often mistake me for someone who is cool that they would like to get to know.

Believe me, I do everything possible to dissuade this impression from forming as I am all too familiar with the consequences. When I meet new people, I am often prickly and monosyllabic. I am not a cool person. I am in fact a jerk. Always have been. Always will be. I try very earnestly to convey the reality of my true self but it mostly just doesn’t work. Since I have been living in England, the phenomenon has been exacerbated by the English habit of fast befriending anyone with the vaguest sheen of exotic newness and involves them being all over you like a rash for a week or two and, just as you’re starting to get used to having them around, they decide they don’t like you that much after all.

Another factor is the English trait of presuming that they are able to tell in an instant your true character and resist all attempts at clarification. They know you much better than you know yourself. You know this because they are constantly upbraiding you about your pronunciation of your own home town or surname. This can be both annoying and undermining, particularly if your identity equilibrium is a bit on the shaky side. Although it seems a strong feature of human communications in England, I think it’s probably an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon generally. The Americans seem also quite obsessive about unveiling the person (often a child), within and have created an entire media industry around it. Australians are very keen to know all about others too but with us it’s probably just that we are nosey and have to be talking all the time to remind ourselves that we are alive.

I once briefly had an English boyfriend who was very polite and quite nerdy. It was going rather well until he got it into his head that women like men to be ‘a bit of a bastard’ and suddenly became sullen and moody. I assured him that I was really quite happy with polite and nerdy which was why I had responded to his romantic overtures in the first place. The whole episode was made even more excruciating by the sheer implausibility of the sullen moody routine. He was like a child pretending to be angry with you and completely unable to resist the urge to break into a smile. I spelt it out, explaining very carefully that I did not want to have one of these stupid English relationships where you have to pretend you’re not really into each other. The whole idea of it sounds exhausting and self defeating. You’re doing this because it is optional – unlike your tax return – and should be fun – unlike your tax return. Suffice to say the conversation didn’t go well. He knew me better than I knew myself, obviously.

Yes, all this is sort of going somewhere. The last couple of days I’ve been extrapolating the mixed blessings of my having finished Draft 3 (yes, it is 3, I’ve triple checked) of my book. To recap – head down, tail up - no time to contemplate, finish, euphoria, reflection, doubt, begin again. It’s a circle of life, as ‘Sir’ Elton so eloquently put it in his classic Lion King, except without nature being involved. Reading the Signs suggested I post excerpts of my previous novel (current working title - The Way of the Pear – I’ve always been terrible at titles and change them all the time. I hated the name of every band I’ve ever been in – the one exception being a women’s jazz band called Shrew. You have to admit that is one hot name. Obviously, I was not responsible for it). Some of our fellow bloggers have deservedly found a publisher this way, most recently my blog friend NMJ for her wonderfully titled The State of Me. You can read some excerpts here.

I have decided that I will take Reading the Signs’s advice and post a couple of chapters. All I have to do now is work out how I’m going to do that. My preferred method would be to provide a link rather than put it up as posts. Any ideas on how that could work would be most welcome. So now you’ve probably twigged as to why this long-winded lead-in. I write like a jerk. Hey, if I was the next Zadie Smith or Ian McEwan someone would have noticed by now. Seriously, if you’re expecting cool, you’ll be sorely disappointed. I’m really not being self-deprecating here – I’ve been in England a long time but not long enough for that one to have taken root. Jerk is good. Magnus Mills writes like a jerk (no offence Magnus – I adore your books), as did one of my great literary heroes John Kennedy Toole. Supreme being Jack Kerouac was king of the jerks. Gawd, now I realise I’ve got myself in a hell of a mess because I’ve just name-checked three great writers that you’re all bound to think are cool. I give up. Let the work speak - or whine as the case may be - for itself.

Coming soon to a screen not a million miles from your fingertips

The Way of the Pear – by Noosa Lee

One woman’s struggle to deal with the ruling cuntocracy by writing a musical about Ivanhoe. (In a weird way, it does sort of work)

What the people that really matter said about it :

‘When the going gets tough I put a little more mascara on’ Julian Clary.

‘I throw a custard pie in your face.’ Jules Pipe, Mayor of Hackney – I know he meant it as a complement. Rex Harrison’s annunciation was open to interpretation.

‘There ought to be clowns’. Stephen Sondheim.

Gorgeous picture entitled 'Teorema Metafisiro (oil on canvas 1978) from

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Chop, Chop

Yesterday I reported that I was nearing the end of Draft 4 of my book. This was pants. It is Draft 3 that I have been working on – and incidentally finished just minutes ago. Draft 3 is what is written in the funky little Microsoft Word header that I cleverly created rather than getting down to the hard graft of laying down words and sentences followed by more words and, ho-hum, sentences. What is happening to my mind? Draft 3 or 4, it hardly matters. It is rubbish. Don’t worry, this is not just me having a crisis of confidence - what is on the page is genuine dross. Everything up to Draft 6 is with me. I don’t know how I persevere. I wish I’d chosen to be an artist working in elephant dung, it would have been more rewarding. Still, it’s done and my Arthur/Martha identity issue is all part of the process which, apparently, I must trust. Whatever.

Someone I seriously don’t trust, as you may recall, is Home Secretary John ‘Chopper’ Reid who today had everyone roaring with laughter at his latest suggestion to roll out the barrel of monkeys that is ‘talking’ CCTV. As we know, Government is very fond of trawling the archives of film and literature in search of satire, fantasy and exploitative comedy that can be recycled into innovative government policy, stripped of its irony and morality. British readers will recall Beadle’s About, a television programme in which sane and decent people had their faith in humanity shattered by an experience which involved their prized Cortina being removed and crushed by an officious cunt claiming to be an authority of some kind. Permanent damage was rendered by the knowledge that the victim’s entire family conspired to demolish his self respect. For American readers think Candid Camera. For Japanese readers – any of your television actually.

Britain has the highest concentration in the world of CCTV cameras cruising the general population without any cause whatsoever, so it was only a matter of time before motivation caught up with opportunity and ability. In a ‘successful’ trial in Middlesbrough, an army of gainfully employed citizens on minimal wages holed up in dark and dank monitoring stations, grabbed the chance to broadcast what they’d always wanted to say to the scallywags that threaten our peaceful way of life, by snapping anonymous orders into microphones. The only reasons they hadn’t already done so was that they were afraid of reprisals or constrained by that great British tradition of harrumphing rather than confronting people pissing them off. How great it must have been to finally get the opportunity to use millions of pounds of technology to utter those words you’d always been afraid to say,

‘Attention, child of three or possibly four, wearing a pink Barbie fleece, PICK UP the wrapper of the confectionary item that your harassed single parent on the edge of suicide has not noticed you dropped because she is unable to navigate the minefield of Child Benefit and is terrified that you and your younger siblings will be removed by Social Services with neither explanation nor cause. Your behaviour is unacceptable to the law abiding majority of Britain. Consider yourself named and shamed.’

Outraged of Outer Hairpiece and Appalled of Apple Amstrad jammed the mobile phone of our BBC’s News 24 with their txt msgs. Obviously they would have preferred to present a considered treatise on the futility of pursuing a political policy that divides and conquers an already oppressed underclass by hiving off a section of said underclass to spy upon and torment anonymously via technology their friends, neighbours, children and lovers. The limitations of txt msg-er-g being what they are, this msg invariably arrived as,

This is Big Brother gone mad.

Shame really because it wasn’t Big Brother that went mad but rather the ordinary citizens of Orwell’s Oceania, principally one Winston Smith. This presented us with something of a mxd msg. Not to worry. Chopper soon cleared it all up by appearing on our GMTV – like the BBC’s Breakfast Programme but with blonde people and advertisements for diet foods and a decided absence of baggy eyes and conversations about how dreadfully difficult it is to get up in time for the BBC limo every morning. Chopper explained the motivation behind paying some citizens a tiny amount of money to terrorise their fellows,

‘It helps counter things like litter through drunk or disorderly behaviour, gangs congregating. They are the sorts of things that make people's lives a misery. Anything that tackles that is better.’

Very convincing Chopper. Since you’re able to articulate so succinctly the benefits of having a voice on a stick tell us off in town centres all over Britain as opposed to, say, offering us a society of which we feel proud enough of our environment to care for it without being ordered to, please do proceed.

‘We've got more powers than ever before, more resources than ever before. This is just an additional thing.’

Seriously, Chopper, we couldn’t be more reassured. Do go on.

The vast majority of people are pretty decent. But if people persistently refuse to do this we have got pictures, which provide evidence and the police can be called.’

Well, we would be scared but we know that voice on a stick is instead of the police, right? I think there may be a tiny hole in your plan Chopper.

Well, having got all that off my chest, I feel a whole lot better. My sentences may be crap at Draft 3 but at least they’re whole and I’m not recycling someone else’s plot. Please excuse me, I now feel able to get down to some serious editing of my own...

Barbie barbarised by - the swine!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Yo Beach

Today I thought I might finish the fourth draft of a novel I am writing, but I didn’t. I’ll finish it tomorrow. I have been so masticated by it for the last four or five months that I have not written anything about writing on the blog lately, I’ve just been writing instead. Not that I know anything about writing. But, as you know, ignorance has never stopped me expounding in the past. At least I’ve tried this – rather tragically a few times before. This is my third attempt at a publishable novel. I’ve finished two others. I was quite happy with the results but mine was a minority view. I’ve learned you can’t really argue with someone’s gut reaction that what you have written is bollocks.

I dashed off the mandatory precocious autoblag at around thirty. It is influenced by Kerouac (of course - he was always my hero), JP Donleavy, Simone de Beauvoir (you couldn’t keep me away from Paris – the stench of the Metro was intoxicating in the early 80s – I may have gone on rather too much about that), Talking Heads, X-Ray Specs, The Raincoats, The Clash etc, Elizabeth Jolley, Plato, Doris Lessing, Beckett, Irving, DalĂ­, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley (I always big up Brett because I am the very fortunate owner of a piece of his work), RD Laing and lots (probably too many) others as well. It is unquestionably very dated now and, with a little luck, will survive as a curio – if only in my memory.

Novel number two, I consider to be my magnum opus. I worked on it for five years (two of them virtually full time). It contains everything I will ever want to say (such a relief to get that out of the way), concealed in the plot of a musical. Musicals are my great love (I’ve written two of those as well), but I’m a poor musician and a terrible lyricist. I think I write halfway decent melodies but that’s neither here nor there because I’m never going to be a great composer, just someone who tinkers with tunes. My longed for art form is one where I could combine all my mediocre talents into one great multi-media format. Although I’m constantly looking at Opus No. 2 to find a way to make it something that others would want to read, ultimately it represents the mosaic of my mind and it’s a take it or leave it thing. I have a couple of champions who think it’s brilliant – unfortunately, they aren’t publishers.

This current book is a thriller set on the Costa del Sol, Spain in the mid 1990s when I, coincidentally, lived there. Having played out my flirtation with language and mined my own authenticity to bedrock in Opus No. 2, all I wanted to do in this book was create a plot and write to it. Easier fucking said than done. I can see now why writers and artists who manage to turn their life/body into product, stick with it forever – nice little earner or what? I love Tracey Emin’s art and certainly wish I owned even a needlework sampler of hers. If I could have commercialised my ‘being’ then I probably would have but I am not Tracey Emin or dear old Jackie Duluoz.

There are gangsters and drugs of course - there always are in novels about the Costa del Sol - but the book is not about gangsters and drugs. I wanted to write a love story since I’ve never done one before. I am crap at love in real life. I’ve always managed to mess it up. But I didn’t want to write that. There are plenty of novels about messed up love already (hello Helen Fielding, Martin Amis, Hanif Kureishi and wonderful Magnus Mills). Unfortunately if a woman falls in love with a man in your novel, it is by definition a romance, and I didn’t want to write a romance. Your woman needs to fall in love with another woman if you want your novel to be considered a work of literature. Alternatively, you could have a man falling in love. This is much more flexible as the man can fall in love with a woman, another man or even his model train set and not attract the attention of Mills & Boon. My guy falls in love with a women and it all goes swimmingly until he gets shot in the head. Never mind.

The fourth draft was all about getting the story right and not forgetting what everyone looked like and how they spoke. I managed this with the aid of an index box and lots of cards which I purchased from irritable Argun the Stationer without incurring so much as a withering stare, even though I insisted on the green one which was on the very bottom of a stack of index boxes parked precariously on a high shelf. Now that the plot more or less works, the next draft will be all about getting the language right. At the moment all the men sound a bit like Danny Dyer.

Working in a show home is no fun because I keep forgetting where I put things and have to spend half an hour looking for the washing up bowl every evening. I’m becoming more consistent with practice and usually I put my ugly everyday items in the washing machine or under the bed. I have had about a dozen people through my London flat but none of them have wanted to buy it. I don’t get it. Today a pretty canal boat even chugged by while a potential buyer was gazing out the window and he remained resolutely unmoved.

Having lived on the water for the last ten years, I have decided I cannot do without my ocean view. The only problem is that there is almost no place left in Australia where I can afford to buy a house that is right on the beach. I have found one area that I quite like the look of but it is a breeding ground for Great White Sharks so that might put the kybosh on my surfing. I prefer sharks to snakes because at least we can reach an agreement on territorial boundaries. One thing I am certain of, I want a much quieter and simpler existence. They say if you’re tired of London you’re tired of life. I say there’s only one thing wrong with London - it’s become singularly obsessed with money and power – two things that interest me not a jot.

Yesterday, my organic box came from Abel & Cole and it was full of gorgeous, tasty fruit and vegetables of odd, very unsupermarkety shapes. Among the delicacies it contained were globe artichokes, fennel and lollo rosso lettuce. This alone was enough to consider naming this wonderful organisation in my will. I settled for an email telling them how much I loved them and got one straight back saying they loved me too. Every week my farm fresh produce comes with no packaging apart from the box holding it all together, which I give back. This is how I want everything in my life to be. I don’t want my rubbish sent to China because there is no other way to dispose of it. I don’t want to hear that Tesco is forcing farmers to virtually give their milk away. I don’t want fish from diseased or depleting fish stocks and I don’t want half a dozen phone calls a day from arrogant twats demanding my personal information for no other reason than it is their job to do so.

I want a compost bin, solar electric, rainwater tanks, enough space to grow my own veges, locally caught fish and milk and eggs from happy cows and chickens. Is there such a thing as peddle-powered broadband? There ought to be. And I want sheds. I’ll probably continue to write novels, even if I can’t get them onto book shelves but I also want to start making art from all the things I can’t bear to throw out that I’ve been collecting in boxes for years. But most of all, I want a water view. Why am I the only person in London who would rather live on the water than next door to Sainsburys?

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Well, Mock Me!

Words failed me for at least twenty-four hours after I read the gut-wrenching claims by Manchester United boss ‘Sir’ Alex Ferguson that a ‘mocking culture’ which has blossomed in Britain, seemingly overnight, is responsible for the crippling abuse heaped upon beleaguered England football coach, Steve McClaren. That would be as opposed to his stunningly dire performance in his job, presumably. McClaren did start from the not inconsiderable disadvantage of being one of the last people to be offered the England job and the only one fool enough to take it, but how difficult can it be to take a team comprising some of the best players in the world and coax a goal out of them when they’re up against a team made up of the only men under fifty in a tiny country not exactly known for its football who were able to get time off from goat herding duties?

Having fallen to earth just days ago and discovering to his horror that Britons have the capacity for mean-spiritedness (pause for expression of complete dismay at House of Pants), Sir Ferg has taken it upon himself to find an explanation for this shocking new phenomenon. After at least five minutes of deep consideration, he came up with the answer that the spiteful judges on television talent shows are responsible for all this ugliness.

‘We have a mocking situation in this country now’, he intoned to anyone daft enough to be listening. ‘You see it on all these TV shows where the panellists criticise the contestants’. The particular target of this spontaneous venom seemed to be the sort of shows where mostly deluded talent vacuums receive a much needed wake up call or forgotten sports personalities demonstrate just how scary a post-career paunch can look with sequins stretched over it. As if caught up in the metaphoric maze of this addled creation, the gallant Sir Ferg continued deep into the realms of his quicksand logic.

‘There’s a mocking industry now,’ (??? Gosh, I hope old Scrooge McDuck over at the Treasury is factoring this into GDP and promoting it as one of Britain’s areas of economic growth), ‘and it’s even generated by television programmes. Even when they skate, the panel criticises them.’ For the benefit of foreign readers, that last bit refers to an avalanche of tasteless ex-celeb self-loathing that went by the name of Dancing on Ice in which a dozen or so has beens with two left feet apiece were taught to ice skate then paraded in front of a gripped nation as evidence that they were complete crap at more than one thing.

Perhaps Sir Ferg has been surrounded by sycophantic minions and monosyllabic footballers for so long that he has failed to notice that being beastly to each other is as British as warm beer and cold roast beef. Open hostility in every sphere of human interaction is central to the national psyche. What would we do without our pastime of complaining about everyone and everything with devilish wit? What justification would we have if bus drivers smiled at us instead of slamming the doors in our faces just as we get to the bus stop? Shows with vicious judges and contestants with psychotic egos where brains should be have been around since television began. Did he never see Opportunity Knocks? The ‘knock’ part was ‘ironic’ – geddit?

Ever wondered why the villains in movies are all British? Americans don’t like to play baddies because they just don’t want people to think unkindly of them. Jeremy Irons, on the other hand, has sold both of his own grandmothers and several of Sinead Cusack’s as well for minor roles in Bruce Willis films. Clearly he doesn’t give a ferret’s fart what anyone thinks of him. Ben Kingsley, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone – my God, the Stoner once swapped three of his cute Cockney kiddies for an audition for Darth Vader’s understudy. He didn’t get the part and the children all sadly perished in the Clone Wars. Has Sir Ferg missed out on Britain’s most important contribution to comedy, the funny man/straight man routine epitomised by the likes of Morecombe and Wise? Sorry, but isn’t that all about mockery and humiliation and don’t we piss the proverbial pants over it?

What we dearly love in Britain is the thought that every day bad things will happen to good people. It’s what gets us up in the morning. We do not praise success – that would just be gross and American (ugghhh). No, we either deeply resent it or reward it with vast amounts of money to demonstrate just how tawdry we find it, and prime ourselves with patience for the inevitable tumble from glory which will make it all worthwhile.

We much prefer humiliation and failure which, in addition to giving us a good laugh at some poor sod’s expense, establishes that he or she is ‘human’. Perfection is unrealistic and far too American (ugghhh), whereas frailty is the stuff of grim forbearance, a quality we hail. It is essential that when we chuck someone in the stocks and hurl mildewed cabbage at them that they respond with good humour. Sir Ferg might like to take notes. He may only be a couple of players away from the ducking stool himself and he might need to locate the ability to see the funny side in the not too distant future …

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